It was never Alhambra native Joanna Vargas’s plan to return to her hometown after high school. The dancer moved to Long Beach for college, signed with an agent, and was on her way to becoming a professional dancer for music artists like Raquel and Usher. But Vargas made her way back to Alhambra when her dance company began rehearsing at Let’s Dance LA, a studio on Main Street. When the opportunity to buy the space came up, Vargas just couldn’t turn it down. She opened up her own dance studio, JayVee Dance.
Since then, Vargas, 35, has started up a gym and fitness center, an entertainment and events company, and a new statewide dance competition in Alhambra. Ever energetic, she also serves as Alhambra Downtown Business Association president. Vargas sat down with Alhambra Source in January to talk about her Alhambra roots, her love of dance, and what it means to her to teach Alhambra residents and their kids how to connect with the arts and be healthier.
What’s your connection with Alhambra?
I was born in Montebello, but my parents lived in Alhambra on Second Street and two houses down from Alhambra High School. You could hear the bell from my house. So when I would wake up in the morning when I was in high school, I knew that eight-minute bell. I would leave the house and walk to school.
What were you like as a child? Were you dancing at a young age?
I’ve always wanted to dance since I was 3 or 4 years old. I just remember being a little girl and being able to count music and nobody ever taught me how to do that. When my mom was pregnant with me she was on toe, and there’s a picture when she was three months pregnant with me and she was still dancing. She used to dance in a studio called June Nichols. Then she gave birth and ever since I was little I wanted to dance. So finally she told me she was going to take me to June Nichols.
Why did you decide you wanted to open a dance school?
I wanted to open a dance studio ever since I was 11 because of Paula Abdul. The reason I opened one in Alhambra was that as an adult I was in a dance company called the "Groovaholix,” an all-female dance company that would rehearse at Let’s Dance LA on Main Street, which is now JayVee dance. I knew the owners were moving to First Street and I was crossing my fingers that they would sell it to me since they knew I really wanted to own a dance studio.
One day, the owners made the announcement that these other people from Diamond Bar were going to buy the dance studio and I was crushed. I was hurt that they were going to sell it to these people that they didn’t even know. I said, “Okay, it wasn’t meant to be. I’m going to open one in Long Beach.” Then six or eight months later, those people went out of business. The owner, Enio Cordova, called me and goes, “Joanna, do you want to buy the dance studio?” My jaw just dropped. My whole life changed from there.
In two weeks we opened up JayVee Dance center. I didn’t know what I was doing. When the studio opened, I would come in the morning, clean up, and then teach every single class in one room. We went from three or four students until one kids’ hip-hop class had 15 students and that’s when we opened the second class.
What is it like teaching children to dance?
I am blessed to have the ability to be great with kids. I enjoy pushing them and taking them to their 100% capability and expectations. I like to guide them to a place that they didn’t even know they could reach. It’s important for me to teach kids dance and creative arts because it assists with their self-esteem. It helps their grades go up, gives them confidence, and teaches them the importance of being in front of crowds. It fulfills my soul because teaching is what I love to do.
You’ve been involved in philanthropy here in Alhambra. Can you please explain your different efforts to help residents?
For QueenVee Entertainment, we have a charity fashion show. We raised $1,200 from the fashion show in 2011 and we sent two kids to Hip Hop International in Las Vegas.
My mom passed away eight months ago and we started a memorial fund called The Viola Vargas Dance Memorial Fund. My mom would always donate money to JayVee anonymously every month. She would sponsor one kid for a full scholarship worth $350. We would pick a student, but nobody knew who it was from.
You recently opened a gym called The Fit Factor. How did you make the transition from dance to fitness?
In 2011, I started training people in my personal gym and started to discover that I really enjoyed motivating them. I started to wonder how to incorporate this into a class and that’s how to The Fit Factor was born. I was the president of the Downtown Business Association. I was on the Chamber and I knew people here, so I decided to have it here because my roots are here and it would be easier to get in and out.
Why have you opened so many businesses in Alhambra?
I originally wanted my first dance studio to be in Long Beach, but by the way things worked out, I came back here to Alhambra and I am glad. The Fit Factor I wanted to be established here in Alhambra because Alhambra needed it.
I really want to see this city grow to its fullest. I really like the events we have through out the year like the St. Patrick’s Day Pub Crawl, Hot Spots, and the Tree Lighting ceremony, but I would like to see more events involving more of the community, like a singles night for mature adults.
What will Main Street be like in five years?I could see Main Street growing in popularity. By 2015, I could see Alhambra becoming a destination city, where there is also more foot traffic and bigger stores are fighting to get in here.
After growing my roots with the city, I decided to keep all my businesses in Alhambra and make that the seeding ground for Jayvee Empire. Personally in five years I would like to own ten more Fit Factors.
Interview was edited and condensed.
*Updated: An earlier version of this story mispelled Groovaholix and left out that Paula Abdul was the inspiration for Vargas to want to teach dance.